Dartmoor Halloween Traditions
Halloween is said to be the time of year when the veil 'twixt this world and the next is at its thinnest. When magic is strong, witchcraft real, supernatural beings at the strength of their power. It is the time of the year when the dead rise from their graves...to return once more to the land of the living.
Now, Dartmoor can appear desolate at the best of times, a sinister landscape on the brightest summer's day. Late October's lengthening shadows only make things worse, autumn's mizzle coating the granite tors and damp mires with the dreariest of outlooks. It's as though an already bleak canvas has been painted even gloomier by mother nature's palette.
The moor's folklore is equally grim, with tales of gibbets and witches and the hounds of hell chasing lost souls. One can easily imagine what Dartmoor therefore became, in the minds of the imaginative, during Halloween seasons gone by.
Once darkness fell on the 31st October, fires were lit in isolated farmhouses and cottages, the ubiquitous Jack o’ Lanterns placed in doorways and windows to scare evil spirits away. However, the young people of Dartmoor did not wish to bar entry to all spirits, only those who meant them harm. For it was believed that communicating with the dead harnessed powers of clairvoyance when predicting the fortunes of the living.
A young girl, keen to marry, learnt the identity of her future spouse in the following way. Facing a mirror, she brushed her hair with her left hand whilst holding an apple in her right. A vision of her intended then appeared behind her in the mirror's reflection.
But how long before this man of destiny did the honourable thing and proposed? The eager maid could solve this puzzle by sprinkling a handful of paper strips upon a bowl of water. Some remained floating, others sank to the bottom. The number that sank to the bottom indicated the number of years before her wedding took place.
These curious girls often gathered together on Halloween night. Sat before the fireplace of one of their lonely cottages, they dared each other to place hazelnuts upon the hot bars of the grate. Whoever’s nut was the first to catch fire was the first of those friends to marry, whereas the first nut to crack pointed towards its owner being jilted at the altar! Whichever girl owned the first nut to fall spitting from the grate was destined to remain forever a spinster.
So far, so much harmless fun, but this being Dartmoor on Halloween night, a more sinister turn of events was never far away.
The girl whose nut wouldn’t catch fire, but only smoked or smouldered, would soon be stricken with sickness and death.
Which takes us to far and away the darkest, most sinister, most frightening Dartmoor Halloween tradition of all. If a man was brave enough, he might walk to his local church at midnight and peer through the keyhole in its door. In so doing, he would see the ghosts of the parishioners who died during the previous twelve months cavorting within.
A ghastly sight for sure.
But worse still, they would reward the intrepid adventurer’s courage by whispering to him the names of the local people destined to join them during the following year!
I hope you enjoyed reading these tales of Halloween traditions on Dartmoor. Should you be in the mood for more spooky stories of ghosts and witches, try the following tales elsewhere in this section of moorland folklore…